Architecture and design for the masses must be functional, in the sense that they must be acceptable to all and that their well-functioning is the primary necessity. A chair can be uncomfortable and a work of art, but only the occasional specialist can be expected to prefer its aesthetic to its utilitarian qualities. The plea for functionalism is the first of our sources. Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, born in 1812, the English son of a French father, wrote on the first page of his most important book: 'There should be no features about a building which are not necessary for convenience, construction, or propriety . . . The smallest detail should . . . serve a purpose, and construction itself should vary with the material employed.
That was written in 1841, but it was not new then. It is the direct continuation of the principle of French seventeenth and eighteenth century rationalism. Architecture, writes Batteaux, is not a spectacle . . . but a service, and security, fitness, convenience, propriety are all familiar from Cordemoy to Boffrand and the younger Blondel. To quote two less familiar passages, neither French: Hogarth called the first chapter of his Analysis of Beauty, Of Fitness, starting thus: Fitness of the parts to the design for which every individual thing is form'd … is of the greatest consequence to the beauty of the whole … In ship-building the dimensions of every part are confin'd and regulated by fitness for sailing.
When a vessel sails well, the sailors call her a beauty; the two ideas have such a connection. And the Abbate Lodoli, not uninfluenced perhaps by Hogarth, referred in his stimulating conversations to the Venetian gondola as a piece of functional design, and stipulated that nothing ought to appear in a building which is not 'truly fulfilling its function' or: 'has not its own proper function' and is not 'an integral part of the fabric' and sign designed in a logical relation to the 'nature of the material.
The fact that Pugin, who came first in this string of quotations, called the book which he started with this clarion call The True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture, the fact that his principal purpose was not a plea for functionalism but for the Gothic Revival as the expression of a Catholic Revival, even the fact that he argued extremely intelligently the functional aspect of the Gothic style, of buttresses, of rib-vaults and so on, all these facts do not concern us at present. He was read by the Gothicists, but he was also read by the Functionalists.
For such existed among the mid-nineteenth century writers and thinkers. Gottfried Semper in Germany, with his explanation of the applied or decorative arts as conditioned by materials and techniques, was one of them. He had lived in London as a refugee in the years 1851-5, and must have been in contact with the small group of architects, artists and administrators responsible for the preparation, the success and the ruthless criticism of the Great Exhibition of 1851: Henry Cole in the first place, Owen Jones, Matthew Digby Wyatt and Richard Redgrave in the second.
These men, even before the exhibition, had issued a small journal called the Journal of Design and Manufactures and in this had applied the principles of Pugin, as Semper was going to do later, to matters of craft and industrial art. Pugin had objected to carpets where one walks 'upon highly relieved foliage, the Journal now insisted that carpets should keep to 'a level or low plane', that wallpapers should convey 'the proper impression of flatness' and in a more general way, that 'the first consideration of the designer should be perfect adaptation to intended use' and that every object 'to afford perfect pleasure must be fit for the purpose and true in its construction'.
No wonder that these men, when the Crystal Palace had gone up and been filled with the proudest products of all nations, were appalled at the standard of taste displayed. 'The absence of any fixed principle in ornamental design is most apparent,' they wrote, and 'the taste of the producers is uneducated. No wonder either that they admired the Crystal Palace itself.
We fawn over grand architects, so their heads get bigger and their buildings more outrageous. … Costs have ballooned, the public disliked it and the prime minister, Shinzo Abe, listened to the “voice of the people” and gave it the heave-ho. Hooray. … It's the rubbish built for the poor that is really sickening: cheap, dull, minimum-height ceilings, mean little square windows – no ornament at all, not even a sill – crappy materials and the crappiest possible design. Near me ……via Japan's heave-ho of Zaha Hadid's Olympic stadium is a win for the …
The architectural history of the 20th century is often presented in terms of advances in science and technology leading to light, airy, green, healthy cities for the masses. It was a reaction to the filthy industrial slums of the ……via Design for dying – TED Blog
Alexandra Lange is an architecture and design critic. Her essays, reviews, and features Alexandra_Lange have appeared in Architect, Domus, Dwell, Medium, Metropolis, New York Magazine, the New Yorker blog, and the ……via Modernism for the Masses | SARASOTA MODERN